Results 1 to 8 of 8

    • Join Date: Nov 2009
    • Posts: 1
    #1

    Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    I'm writing a story which takes place in a fictional town called "Aherville" in which all the residents are observant Jews. In the third-person narration, I mix past and present tenses. Specifically, when referring to something done by a character in the narrative, I use the past tense; but when referring to Jewish traditions, I use the present tense.

    For example, I might write "In Aherville, everyone celebrates Shabbos every week," but a couple of sentences later, write "Zindel felt hungry because he hadn't eaten all day."

    A reader is arguing that this usage is ungrammatical; she argues that all the tenses must match in order to make the narrative voice consistent. I disagree. I've been looking for an authoritative citation to show my friend, but I haven't had any luck so far. Could anyone here direct me to such a citation?

    Alternatively, if I'm mistaken, then it would be very useful to tell me that.

    Thanks very much for any help.


    • Join Date: Nov 2009
    • Posts: 191
    #2

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    Do you notice that your reader also makes grammatical errors in her speech?

    You are right.
    Aherville no doubt existed before Zindel was born, and will continue to do so after his death. That there are observant Jews in Aherville is presented as a fact of life in Aherville. Would it make sense to say, "Everyone celebrated Shabbos every week..." if Shabbos was still being celebrated AFTER Zindel had a good meal; and would still be by the end of your story?

    Present Tense is used for a fact which is 'universal', 'timeless', where a beginning and an end to the event/action is irrelevant.

    Using the Past tense = no more, over, done. The only way this could be - the use of the Past Tense - is if you wrote, "...was celebrated every week, but the demands of modern life on people's time had dwindled this to a monthly event. Their fervour, however, remains strong: a case of the spirit is willing, but their social calendars are full."

    "The Flying Scotsman departs Edinburgh for London at 9.37 p.m. every morning. It was a typically bleak day in Edinburgh when Zindel boarded the train, his heart far heavier then the suitcase he carried."

    As for a reference/citation, I''m sure Thornton Wilder blithely mixes his tenses in Our Town!
    Last edited by Excalibur; 20-Nov-2009 at 21:37.

  1. konungursvia's Avatar
    • Member Info
      • Native Language:
      • English
      • Home Country:
      • Canada
      • Current Location:
      • Canada

    • Join Date: Mar 2009
    • Posts: 5,158
    #3

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    I agree you can do that. But it has to look deliberate. Maybe your reader finds you wander without any apparent logic.


    • Join Date: Nov 2009
    • Posts: 191
    #4

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    konungursvia: Maybe your reader finds you wander without any apparent logic.

    From the style, the flow, the clear, logical development of the posting itself - this poster has command of English - I doubt that this is a factor.

  2. konungursvia's Avatar
    • Member Info
      • Native Language:
      • English
      • Home Country:
      • Canada
      • Current Location:
      • Canada

    • Join Date: Mar 2009
    • Posts: 5,158
    #5

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    Right but commanding a narrative voice is another kettle of chocolate teapots.


    • Join Date: Nov 2009
    • Posts: 191
    #6

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    His 'narration' of his query sure spoke volumes to me - his grammar and style are excellent.
    Punctuation?
    "For example, I might write "In Aherville, everyone..."

    For example, I might write, "In Aherville, everyone...


    "...of sentences later, write "Zindel felt hungry because he hadn't eaten all day."
    "...of sentences later, write, "Zindel felt hungry because he hadn't eaten all day."
    OK - need for some work.

    Capitalization? Perhaps 'Present tense' etc instead of 'present tense'.

    Vocabulary? Note the correct choice of 'narration', and not 'narrative'!

    Grammar? Impeccable.


    ...and the very nature of the query indicates that his correct 'mixing of tenses' is now an innate understanding, on which the "reader" has thrown doubt. Let's not further undermine his confidence as a wordsmith by being pessimistic: that the "reader" thinks she smells smoke, we should yell "Fire"?
    Oy vey!
    (and 'oy vey' and 'schlepping' are just about the limit to my command of Yiddish.)
    Last edited by Excalibur; 20-Nov-2009 at 22:37.

    • Member Info
      • Native Language:
      • English
      • Home Country:
      • England
      • Current Location:
      • England

    • Join Date: Feb 2005
    • Posts: 2,585
    #7

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    A reader is arguing that this usage is ungrammatical; she argues that all the tenses must match in order to make the narrative voice consistent.
    When telling a story about X-ville, you might narrate Y in the past tense and Z in the present tense to create an impression that Z has occurred in X-ville since before the time of Y, and has continued to the present day.

    In other words, it's a rhetorical device.

    MrP

    Not a professional ESL teacher.

  3. Raymott's Avatar
    • Member Info
      • Native Language:
      • English
      • Home Country:
      • Australia
      • Current Location:
      • Australia

    • Join Date: Jun 2008
    • Posts: 24,104
    #8

    Re: Mixing past and present tense in fiction

    Quote Originally Posted by Ampersand View Post
    A reader is arguing that this usage is ungrammatical; she argues that all the tenses must match in order to make the narrative voice consistent. I disagree. I've been looking for an authoritative citation to show my friend, but I haven't had any luck so far. Could anyone here direct me to such a citation?

    Alternatively, if I'm mistaken, then it would be very useful to tell me that.

    Thanks very much for any help.
    No, I can't direct you to an authoritative citation, but I agree with the others that what you are doing is very common in literature, and the best writers do it. It's grammatically correct.

    However, it is quite possible that, even if you have all the wonderful gifts that Excalibur has analyzed for us, you might be changing tense too often for the average reader's comfort. (This is fine if you are not writing for the average reader).
    If more of your readers point out this problem, you could consider starting a section with all the present tense information about how the Jews celebrate Shabbos, and then get to the story.

    While, I'm not saying that this is what you've done, I can imagine becoming weary if I'm jolted out of your past tense narrative by present tense explanations and qualifications every few sentences.
    It's not possible from the sample you've given to say whether you're doing that.

    I hope I haven't dented your confidence. After all, you might be completely innocent of your reader's charges.

Similar Threads

  1. Grammar question
    By ivapetrova9 in forum Ask a Teacher
    Replies: 3
    Last Post: 03-Nov-2009, 11:01
  2. [Grammar] Present tense form, the past tense form and the past participle
    By foggyfield in forum Ask a Teacher
    Replies: 2
    Last Post: 25-Aug-2009, 04:13
  3. Mixing past and present tense in a narrative
    By Blarg in forum Ask a Teacher
    Replies: 1
    Last Post: 12-Feb-2008, 02:36
  4. My own theory on the present perfect tense
    By HaraKiriBlade in forum General Language Discussions
    Replies: 3
    Last Post: 16-Aug-2007, 22:29

Bookmarks

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •